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Goin’ Japanesque!

Japanese Cuisine Etiquette: Place Setting

Though there may be many who love washoku (literally “Japanese food,” but used to refer to classic Japanese cuisine), how many enthusiasts know about the etiquette and manners associated with this traditional aspect of food culture? Japanese cuisine isn’t simply about taking a seat and chowing down: it’s a rich emblem of Japanese culture, where the spirit of hospitality and a dedication to beauty in food are paramount. There is significance even in the layout of those meals you might eat without a second thought while traveling Japan. We’ll be delving into the details of washoku place setting in this article, so if you find your interest piqued, be sure to try it out for yourself! It’s nowhere near as difficult as you might think.


Fundamentals of Washoku

The fundamental philosophy of washoku is “one soup, three dishes.” This refers to a meal consisting of rice, a soup dish, and three complimentary dishes.


Place Setting for Washoku

Assuming a “one soup, three dishes” approach, the layout for traditional Japanese cuisine is as pictured above. If we investigate these items a little further…


1 – Lower Left: Rice (staple dish)
2 – Lower Right: Soup, e.g. miso soup (soup dish)
3 – Upper Right: Sashimi, grilled fish, fried dish, etc. (main dish)
4 – Upper Left: Simmered or marinated food, etc. (side dish)
5 – Center: Another side dish (secondary dish)
*Actual pictured placing has a pickled dish on the left (kounomono)

The items listed 1 to 5 represent a setup of staple (i.e. rice) and soup with three dishes (main, side, secondary side). Pickled items aren’t added to the total.

Related: Okuizome: A “First Meal” Ceremony for a Baby on Their 100th Day of Life


The Placement of Rice and Soup

When dining with this place setting, there are probably more than a few people who feel that it’d be easier to eat if the soup was placed between the rice and the side dish (on the left), since you hold your soup bowl when you eat. However, there are reasons why the soup is placed on the right. As the staple starch of Japan, rice is held in high esteem by Japanese people, and it is considered a breach of good manners to reach over your rice when you stretch your arm to take your soup. Additionally, the left side has long been treated as the “higher” side in Japan, and thus rice is placed on the left. It’s believed that this rice-soup relationship was already established in the Heian period (794–1185).

On an interesting note, the placement of rice and soup is reversed when they are offered at the family Buddhist altar.


Even for multi-course meals with many dishes, such as those in Japan’s “kaiseki” banquet cuisine, the fundamental approach for place setting is still based on “one soup, three dishes.” We hope you’ll keep this introduction on place setting in mind and put it to use whenever you next head out to a traditional restaurant to enjoy washoku together with sake or shochu. The more prestigious a Japanese restaurant, the more you’ll find that these principles of etiquette are strictly observed.

Related: 13 Need-to-know Basics of Chopstick Etiquette for Japanese Restaurants

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